The weekend of February 24-26, we had homestays in Ocean View, the “colored” community that we had visited on our first tour of Cape Town. I stayed with a Muslim family that had two adorable young daughters, and we spent the weekend hanging out, coloring, watching movies, and singing karaoke for what must have been a record breaking number of hours. Beyond the interesting conversations and culture shock from both ends, I think the most valuable part of my homestay was simply being with a family for a weekend. I spent most of my time not just with my immediate host family, but their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, too. The last day of our stay was also my birthday, and so my host-aunt baked me beautiful cupcakes in the shape of a 21!
On Sunday, our house took a trip to Robben Island, the famous prison that held political activists, such as Nelson Mandela, during the apartheid. After taking a ferry to the island, we explored the jail under the guidance of a former prisoner. He described to us the environment of the Robben Island prison, which seemed unique because it housed only political prisoners rather than criminal offenders. The leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were kept in secluded cells so that they wouldn’t be able to pass on information to the other prisoners, but our guide emphasized that there was a general spirit of brotherhood in the prison, especially in prisoner education. He described the meal portions that were allocated by race, the mail that was cut up and censored, and the protests that the prisoners would organize to end this type of discrimination at Robben Island. It was a unique experience to have a guide who was a former prisoner, however we didn’t really get any personal memories about his experience as a political activist or as a political prisoner. This idea didn’t strike me at first, however after reading an article about post-apartheid memory for my African studies class, the notion of a former prisoner “on display” and sharing his story multiple times a day seemed a bit problematic. The goal of the museum is to convey an authentic memory, however there seems to be a formulated, tourist-oriented, public narrative that masks some of the reality of the prisoners’ experience. Here is a passage of the article that outlines the potential conflict between personal experience and national memory at Robben Island:
“The major question I ask here can be phrased as follows: Between the hegemony of the narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle and the role of Robben Island in it, on the one hand, and the discursive economy of the heritage industry and global tourism on the other, is there a space for the truly personal lives and subjectivities of the ex-prisoner tour guides to emerge in their narratives and memories of their time on the island? In short, can personal, private memories be produced and narrated against the grain of the public, collective memory in this instance?”
(Harry Garuba, Museums, Mimesis, and the Narratives of the Tour Guides of Robben Island)
There’s something about studying abroad that makes you feel a bit like Superman. Whether it’s learning a new sport, a new language, or a new skill, there is something about this experience on another continent that makes you feel like you can do anything. And if you think you can’t, then your friends will peer pressure you enough to make you try anyway. My guess is that it has to do with the idea we all had freshman year of college- that we’re all given a clean slate because nobody knew us in high school, or in this case, in college. I’ve had several Superman moments already in Cape Town. I did the highest bungee jump in the world. I sand-boarded. I’m taking an African Studies graduate course without having taken an African Studies undergraduate course. I’m learning to play pool. I’m learning to cook with more spices than salt and pepper. Now this isn’t to say that I’ve been hugely successful at any of these things, but the beauty of being in a group of strangers in a strange country is that we’re all challenging ourselves personally with the support of a group who may or may not know that we’re worried or nervous or frankly, scared shitless.
My most notable (failure of a) Superman moment probably has to be my attempt at surfing. Little did I know before coming here, Cape Town beaches are famous for their waves- or rather their “swells.” So on Thursday when I didn’t have any lectures, I went to the beach for my first surfing lesson with my roommates Esther and Kelsey. None of us had surfed before, so we shared a beginner lesson with Alfie, an amateur surfer barely over five feet with bleached dreadlocks and a face full of sunscreen that he neglected to rub in. I knew I was in for a challenge from the moment I was handed a wetsuit. It was like squeezing into skinny jeans and a turtle neck that were five sizes too small. Carrying our surfboards to the beach was another struggle, because it was windy and we were given the longest boards possible to give us the best chance at getting up on a wave.
Then came the moment where I was transported into the scene between Jason Segel and Paul Rudd in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” We learned how to properly stand up on the board, and after repeating it only once, we dove right into the ocean. Alfie pushed us onto waves, and we tried again and again to get up on our boards. He offered us that goodhearted but frustrating advice like “Just let go!” or “Don’t worry, you’ll balance!” I tried channeling my inner Superman, and just when I felt like I was going to finally stand up, I got stung by a jellyfish. Twice. And the only thing worse than getting stung twice by a jellyfish is having a surfing instructor who is more scared of jellyfish than you are. The jellyfish stayed wrapped around my foot until Alfie stopped jumping around and finally rolled his wetsuit down over his hands to get the thing off of me. All in all, it was a memorable day, but surfing just might be my kryptonite.
This post is for everyone out there who thinks I’m in South Africa for five months just to bungee jump and sand board and go on safari. Contrary to everything I’ve blogged thus far, I actually go to school here. I take real classes (granted, only three), I have a real UCT student ID card, and I even purchased books this weekend. So maybe I only had class on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but I thought I would share my schedule so we can all breathe easy knowing that I’m actually studying abroad.
ELL3005F MODERNISM: THE CITY AND ITS STRANGERS
Seminar: Faulkner and Hemingway
ELL2007F AFRICAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE STUDIES
Seminar: On Censorship and South African Literature
AXL4202F RACE, CULTURE, AND IDENTITY IN AFRICA
We left the festival on Sunday and traveled the rest of the way to Mossel Bay, where we stayed in the Santos Express Lodge, an old train that was converted into a hostel. All 15 of us stayed on bunk beds in train car 7, and therefore referred to ourselves as Bunk 7 for the rest of the trip. We didn’t do much in Mossel Bay that night because being the alternative study abroad students that we are, we decided to drive all the way out to Port Elizabeth the next day and do the Garden Route in reverse. The itinerary was as follows:
- Monday: Night in Port Elizabeth
- Tuesday: Beach Day at Jeffrey’s Bay
- Wednesday: Bungee Jumping in Storms River and Night in Knysna
- Thursday: Caving in Oudtshoorn
- Friday: Game Drive at Botlierskop
- Saturday: Sandboarding in Mossel Bay
Note: In South Africa, “hectic” is a word used to describe a situation that is wild, extreme, exciting, and enjoyable